Educators and students push state to close schools while COVID cases surge

Detroit Public Schools Community District student and teacher | Ken Coleman photo

A coalition of Michigan educators and Detroit Public Schools Community District students have banded together urging the state to pause all in-person learning while COVID-19 cases spike statewide. 

Six groups, including Michigan Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (MICORE), Black Lives Matter Michigan, Detroit Area Youth Uniting Michigan (DAYUM), Michigan Education Justice, Detroit Heals Detroit and Michigan Students Dream, launched a petition earlier this month garnering support to pause in-person learning in Michigan “until the COVID-19 spread goes down and we can ensure safe learning environments.”

As of Monday, the petition has over 12,300 signatures.  

“Enough of the haphazard plans that have led to people getting sick and dying. Enough of valuing money over life and safety. Enough of downplaying the science when it comes to students and their families. Enough of ignoring the needs of our Black, Brown, and Indigenous community members. We know that this virus disproportionately harms marginalized communities,” the groups wrote. “Together we say: ENOUGH. We demand these changes and fight together to ensure that we take care of our students, our school workers, and our communities.”

In total, the state has reported 793,881 COVID-19 cases and 16,901 deaths as of Monday. 

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Of the hundreds of thousands of cases, a significant portion of them spread through schools. This week alone, 43 K-12 school outbreaks were reported by the state, and another 293 school outbreaks are considered ongoing, meaning the outbreaks were previously reported but have had at least one new associated case in the last 28 days.

Whether a school offers virtual, in-person or a hybrid learning model has been up to the local districts for months. But as cases start to rise, especially among young people, and many outbreaks are being traced back to youth sports teams, many people are hoping the state will take greater action.

On April 9, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recommended that high schools voluntarily go remote for two weeks past spring break and youth sports voluntarily suspend games and practices for two weeks. Whitmer has not issued new restrictions on schools and businesses, unlike during previous surges. Instead, her administration is focused on increasing vaccinations.

DPSCD paused in-person learning on April 5, when students were expected to return back after spring break, for two weeks, and on Thursday the district extended the pause until May 11. 

According to the April 13 Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) COVID-19 data update, the average daily case rate for the 0 to 9 age group is about 285 cases and the average daily case rate for the 10 to 19 age group is about 827 cases. 

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Case rates have been surging for all age groups across Michigan, as well as the state’s hospitalization rate and death rate. 

“And as students and staff return from spring break, the risk for increases in transmission are even higher. The mass vaccination efforts are encouraging, but public health experts acknowledge that we are in a race against the more transmissible and more virulent strains of the coronavirus. Now is not the time to relax important, necessary safety measures,” the coalition of education justice groups wrote.

The group demands that the in-person learning pause happens on a county level until there is an average of less than 20 cases per 100,000 people and the positivity rate drops below 5%.

Currently, Michigan has a seven-day average of 56.7 cases per 100,000 and the state’s case positivity rate is at 18.5%.

DAYUM, A group of DPSCD students, also wrote in support of virtual learning while Michigan fights off another COVID-19 surge. 

Whitmer calls for voluntary 2-week pause for schools, sports, as COVID-19 cases continue to surge

“We, the students of Michigan, are much talked of recently.  We are talked of, but not talked with,” the students wrote. “Our mental health and educational needs are hot conversation topics, usually used as an angle to promote a return to unsafe classrooms.  Before you make another statement about what to do ‘for the kids,’ take a moment and listen to our voices.”

One student, Hafiza, wrote that while she was out sick, presumably with COVID-19, in November, her school work was piling up and she was still expected to participate virtually. 

But even so, Hafiza doesn’t want to return to in-person learning. 

Rather, she argues leaders should shift the conversation from in-person learning vs. virtual learning to instead discussing how to improve the quality of virtual education 

“It is not safe to go back, and risking my physical health to protect my mental health is not a reasonable trade,” Hafiza said. “Politicians are trying to use the idea of my mental health to enforce their agenda of going back to in-person learning. They act like that is the only way to help students. They ignore the path that protects both our mental and physical health: make online schooling humane.”

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Allison Donahue
Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.